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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 10, No. 9

Marie-Josée Lord, no falling star!

by Réjean Beaucage / Wah Keung Chan / August 7, 2005

Version française...

Marie-Josée Lords arrival from Haiti at the age of five in Quebecs historic capital marked the beginning of her musical education. There was a piano in her adoptive family’s home. Her parents, both high-school science teachers, were delighted to see how much the instrument intrigued her and particularly how quickly she learned.

Lord began piano lessons at the age of seven. "I stopped studying piano between the ages of fourteen and seventeen because I was also learning the violin, and there were my high-school studies too. But I hurt my shoulder in an accident, had to stop the violin, and finally entered the Conservatory to study piano."

Aware of her own limitations as a pianist, Lord felt it didn’t hold much future for her. "When I reached university, I had to make up my mind about what I wanted to do. I didn’t see myself as a concert pianist — because in that case I should by that time have been giving concerts for several years already. I didn’t see myself as an accompanist, either. You might say that I didn’t hit it off with the piano…" At this point she almost left music for psychology, disillusioned by the fact that after so much study she probably wouldn’t be able to earn a proper living playing instrument. "I wasn’t passionate about the piano, but when I decided to give it up, I discovered singing. I saw a rehearsal of the Quebec Conservatory’s music workshop and I understood the art. ‘That’s it!’ I said to myself. I had discovered an art form that was everything I’d been looking for. It was like finding the man of your life!"

New challenges

Twenty at the time, never having been to the opera, and in her last year of dilatory piano studies – she had already decided to give them up – a friend encouraged Lord to take voice lessons. Just for fun, she agreed. Surprised by Lord’s quick progress, her friend introduced Lord to a music professor who in turn suggested she reaudition for the Conservatory’s voice program.

"Of course I already had a solid grounding in music, having won first prize in solfège, dictation, etc., so I was able to concentrate on learning this new discipline. I tend to learn quickly and am inclined to lose motivation, so I asked my teacher, Madame Martel-Cistellini, to make me work at an advanced level to keep up my interest. As a result, my marks weren’t as high as they might have been because of the level of difficulty that I imposed upon myself. My ego may have suffered, but it was the challenge I had given myself, to do better. I finally had the marks I wanted at the graduate level."

Lord began studying voice in 1992 (she started as a mezzo-soprano), had a contract in lyric theatre for the summer of 1994, and gave her first recital in 1996. Things progressed rapidly. At the Quebec Conservatory, she sang the role of Turandot in 1995 and Suor Angelica in 1998. In 1999 Lord took on another challenge by moving to Montreal for Opéra de Montréal’s Atelier lyrique. "I found the first summer literally overwhelming," she says. "Everyone knows there’s a certain rivalry between Montreal and Quebec City, which meant I wasn’t necessarily welcomed with open arms. I’d been with the same teacher for seven years in Quebec, where I was fairly well known in musical circles. Now I had to begin again. It was difficult to adapt. I spent three years without being able to give my complete trust to another teacher. After a year of solitude, I found the second year difficult from the standpoint of voice. I was incapable of taking part in competitions or auditions, I couldn’t control my voice anymore…"

In 2002, three years after leaving Quebec City, Lord was understudying Violetta in a summer production of La Traviata, when stage director Renaud Doucet encouraged her to study with soprano Lyne Fortin. "I was finally ready to put my trust in a new teacher. Fortin helped me enormously with breathing, voice control, relaxing tension and the automatic compensatory movements that the body develops. Today my voice is far more even and I’ve made great progress in reaching high notes. She’s very straightforward and doesn’t sugar-coat her remarks. When I’m not singing well she doesn’t hesitate to tell me so! She’s like pianist Esther Gonthier, with whom I’ve worked a lot. It keeps you humble and able to see how much you still have to learn. I know that right now I still have to develop a lot of personal confidence so that I can be more sure of myself and exercise greater control over the flow of my voice." After three years her new teacher’s guidance bore fruit, and her date book began to fill up. When Lord sang for the press in April 2003 during Opéra de Montréal’s season launch, the difference was already clearly evident. Lord’s portrayal of Liù in Turandot with the Opéra de Québec in October 2003 was her breakthrough. She went on to a successful Mimi in La Bohème at the Opéra de Montréal in January 2004, where she also reprised Liù in October of the same year. Reviewers discovered a soprano who is also a fine actress, one who renders the emotion in the libretto with gut-wrenching realism.


Marie-Josée Lord received enormous public and critical acclaim in November of 2004 for her role as Marie-Jeanne in the symphonic version of the rock opera Starmania, performed with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra to celebrate the work’s 25th anniversary. She sang the same role to similar acclaim in Paris in January and February of 2005. Further performances with the MSO were soon announced (for June 21 and 22). (At the moment of writing, the MSO is undergoing a general and unlimited strike, jeopardizing these performances). The work will also be performed by the Quebec Symphony Orchestra to open the Quebec Summer Festival in a major outdoor concert on the Plains of Abraham, July 7.

"It’s something I didn’t expect!" says Marie-Josée. "I barely knew Starmania except for the tunes that everyone heard on the radio. I didn’t realize what a phenomenon it was. I took part in it thinking that a pop concert with the MSO would give me added experience, period. I never thought it would be such a success, especially if you think of how many different versions people have already been able to hear." Even though Starmania is a hybrid project removed from opera, its enormous success has given the soprano important visibility.

Lord will be in the spotlight again when she represents Canada at the prestigious BBC Cardiff Singer of the World 2005 competition from June 11 to 19. "This is the second time I’ve tried to register for the Cardiff competition. I didn’t have much hope because there are so many candidates, so I didn’t feel any great pressure. The judge asked me to sing "Signora ascolta" from Turandot, which I know well, then asked me to do it again with various changes. After a pause, he asked for "Donde lieta usci" from La Bohème. We talked, then he asked me after another pause to sing "Stridono lassù" from I Pagliacci. The audition was held in New York, and after I got home I learned that I would be one of the twenty-five participants." Check out the results in next month’s La Scena Musicale.

On August 6, Lord will appear at the Orford Festival with pianist Esther Gonthier in a recital of Spanish and Gershwin songs. The singer’s 2005-2006 season is already booked with numerous prestigious performances, including the role of Louana in Chabrier’s LÉtoile in November and an MSO concert in March. We’ll doubtless have many occasions to write about Marie-Josée Lord!

[Translated by Jane Brierley]

Festival d’été de Québec : http://www.infofestival.com

BBC Cardiff Singer of the World 2005 : http://www.bbc.co.uk/wales/cardiffsinger05

Festival Orford : http://www.arts-orford.org

Opéra de Montréal : http://www.operademontreal.com

What role would she like to play more than any other?

"I’ve already had the chance to do it: Mimi in La Bohème (January 2004, Opéra de Montréal). It’s a wonderful role and I’d like to do it over and over, because there are so many details. The character is simple, but the interaction between voice and music offer so many possibilities that you need a number of performances to explore them. I also like Nedda in I Pagliacci by Leoncavallo. It’s a very short role that supplies the intensity of Verdi and the drama of La Bohème, all in forty-five minutes. It’s perfect for a young soprano like me, who doesn’t want to strain her voice!"

Something to strive for?

"I attended a concert by Renée Flemming and Bryn Terfel, and what struck me first was not so much Renée Flemming’s quality of voice as her capacity to adapt perfectly to the style of each of the songs she sings. Whether it’s Mozart or Gershwin, she’s 100% on the appropriate style, pronunciation, and so on. Right now I’m still looking for someone in Montreal to help me work toward this goal. At a certain moment in your career you begin working more and more on details like this, and the people who can help you are harder and harder to find. This is the next objective, but my ultimate aim is to be able to use my voice like an instrument. You often hear people say about a concert, ‘There were three musicians and a singer.’ But I consider myself a musician and I want to exercise total control over my instrument."

Any inspiring singers?

"I like Barbara Hendricks for her finesse, I like Jessye Norman’s voice, and I like Joan Sutherland for the seeming ease with which she sings, no matter what the song. Among the men I really like Bryn Terfel. He represents what I’d like to be, which is someone simple who sings with his heart."

Recital or opera?

"I like both, but of course you’re more free in a recital and you can show your own originality better. With opera, you’re not able to have as much liberty in your interpretation. You can always work it out with the director, but I tell myself that the best strategy is to agree with all his requests and then do what I want. Anyway, after the premiere, he’s no longer there!"

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